January 15, 1990 12:00 PM

Chances are if Michael Moore had tried to shop his idea for a docucomedy about laid-off autoworkers and the chairman of General Motors around Hollywood, he would have been laughed out of town. First of all, the subject matter was a tad downbeat. Then there was the small matter of Moore’s lack of experience—as editor of two alternative publications he had learned plenty about muckraking, but nothing about moviemaking. So Moore didn’t go the Hollywood route. Instead, he sold his house, hocked his belongings and held weekly bingo games to make a movie starring himself and his friends and neighbors in the depressed Rustbelt burg of Flint, Mich., pop. 150,000.

The result is Roger & Me, a 90-minute, $250,000 documentary that Warner Bros, snapped up for $3 million and that has critics such as Vincent Canby of the New York Times hailing Moore as an “irrepresible new humorist in the tradition of Mark Twain.” The only one who’s not laughing is Roger Smith, 64, GM’s chairman and the Roger of the title.

Bouncing between posh parties and plant shutdowns, the movie chronicles Moore’s 2½-year crusade to get Smith to come to Flint “to see what closing factories does to people and a town.” Moore, 35, dressed in threadbare jeans, a battered navy windbreaker and his trademark cap with the slogan I’M OUT FOR TROUT, is both the movie’s narrator and flat-footed guide. “I guess I’d describe Roger & Me as a dark comedy,” he jokes, “a cross between Grapes of Wrath and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

As for his reluctant co-star: “The last time I saw Roger on TV, he was saying he didn’t see the movie but that he knows he won’t like it.” Indeed, since the film’s release, Smith hasn’t said much. “It doesn’t seem that we should get involved in a hassle like that,” he told one reporter. Flint Mayor Matt Collier, 32, is also miffed. “It’s a very depressing movie,” says Collier. “Especially if you’re from Flint and work hard every day to make it better.”

Some Flint autoworkers agree with Moore that GM didn’t do enough to save the city’s jobs. “GM spent a lot of money on psychologists and retraining,” says Max Grider, 38, who, after a two-year layoff now rivets heat shields at Flint’s Buick City. “But there was none of the fighting spirit these plants stood for.”

If Moore speaks to the heart of Flint autoworkers, it’s because he grew up among them in nearby Davison. His father, Frank, retired in 1973, after 33 years on the line at AC Spark Plug, a division of GM, and his mother, Veronica, also retired, was a secretary in the Davison township offices. Moore spent his freshman year of high school at St. Paul’s Seminary in Saginaw preparing for the Catholic priesthood but left before sophomore year. “This was 1968,” he explains. “A lot of things were going on. The war and dead kids coming home.” In 1972, after the vote was granted to 18-year-olds, Moore ran for the Davison school board, won and, at 18, became one of the youngest elected officials in the country.

After graduating, Moore hired on at the Buick plant where his grandfather had worked. “The day I was supposed to start, I woke up at 4:30 A.M.,” he recalls. “I could hear my dad getting ready downstairs. An incredible fear overtook me. I thought of all my friends who never got out of the factory. So I never went.”

Instead, he enrolled at the University of Michigan in Flint and in 1976 started the Flint Voice, an alternative paper later renamed the Michigan Voice. In 1985 he became a commentator on National Public Radio’s AH Things Considered. Early the next year, when he was offered the editorship of Mother Jones magazine, he closed down the Voice and moved to San Francisco with his girlfriend, Kathleen Glynn. In September her daughter, Natalie, then 5, joined them.

Moore made a splash with his first issue when he put an autoworker on the cover and ran a story called “Revenge of the Rivethead.” But in September 1986, when he was ordered to print a story attacking the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, Moore balked. “I told the owner I’m taking my name off the masthead for that issue,” he recalls. “And he said, “Well, you can take it off for good.’ ”

When Moore returned to Flint in November without a job, he found he wasn’t alone. That year GM said it would close seven plants in Michigan. Job cuts in Flint had begun as early as 1978, and 30,000 autoworkers there would eventually be unemployed. “I was watching TV when I saw Roger Smith announcing more layoffs,” he says. “That’s when I decided to make the movie.”

At first, Moore says, “I didn’t know an f-stop from a truck stop.” Kevin Rafferty, one of the directors of the 1982 documentary The Atomic Cafe, taught him how to tote a camera, but raising money was tougher. He sold his house in Flint for $27,000, held garage sales and used the $58,000 out-of-court settlement from Mother Jones after he sued them for wrongful discharge. For steady income, he emceed bingo games. His take: $300 a week.

Using rented equipment and a novice crew, Moore filmed in Flint, New York City and Detroit—where he confronted a tight-lipped Smith at a GM Christmas party and got the brush-off. In August he tossed the finished film into a yellow beach bag and hit the festival circuit. By October, 14 major and independent studios were vying for rights.

Moore’s deal with Warner’s included provisions that a premiere be held in the Flint area (there are no movie theaters left in the city); that 10,000 tickets be given to unemployed autoworkers; and that $25,000 be paid to the four families whose evictions are shown in the film. The director plans to pay himself a $35,000 salary and use the rest of the $3 million to pay off debts and finance his Flint-based company, Dog Eat Dog Productions. Roger & Me premiered on Dec. 19 on all 14 screens at the Showcase Cinemas in nearby Burton. Moore sent a limousine to GM’s Detroit headquarters for Smith, but it returned empty.

Promoting the film has kept Moore in overdrive. Between Halloween and Christmas, he has spent only two days with Glynn, 31, who is launching a clothing design business. “The last couple of years he has put in a lot of hours,” she says. “That’s real hard, but that’s Mike. If I don’t like it, I can take a hike.”

Moore plans to keep up the pace. He is writing a book about GM and Flint and is thinking about another film. But when asked if success will spoil Michael Moore, he says, “The things I want are not material. I have two pairs of jeans. If you talk to me a year from now, I’ll still only have two pairs. But maybe they’ll be washed more often.”

—Mary H.J. Farrell, Julie Greenwalt in Flint

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